“We’re just their neighbors”

Date Posted: 
Monday, September 21, 2015

Each year, Heights of Hope hosts its Heights of Hope Fest, which celebrates the gifts of the Holland Heights community through performances, cooking, family activities, artwork, and poetry.

Ten years ago, Tracey Hoesch moved into Holland Heights, a neighborhood within the city of Holland, Michigan. Residents in surrounding communities tend to describe the area as low-income, or a transitional neighborhood.

Those aren’t the words Hoesch uses.

“’Low-income’ has a bad connotation. Just because it’s low-income doesn’t mean it has to be a bad neighborhood,” she says. “The reality is, it’s affordable, thriving, healthy, and safe.”

Hoesch is program director of Heights of Hope, a nonprofit community development organization that works with neighbors to improve the neighborhood, empower individuals, and raise up leaders within the Heights. The organization began in 2003 with partner churches Calvary on Eighth Street (RCA), Holland Heights Christian Reformed Church, Niekerk Christian Reformed Church, and Engedi Church. Its programs and activities include tutoring, neighborhood clean-up days, family nights, monthly neighborhood action group meetings, and summer health and fitness nights.

“Instead of focusing on the problems, we focus on the strengths and gifts in the community,” says Hoesch, who attends Calvary on Eighth. “We get to know our neighbors, listen to what they have to say and what ideas they have.”

While the organization is faith-based, its programs are not evangelistic in nature. Instead, Hoesch says, their ministry is rooted in relationship-building. Staff members don’t hide the fact that they’re Christians, but try to keep all activities open and welcoming while forming deeper relationships outside of scheduled events.

Such work is made easier due to Heights of Hope staff’s deep commitment to Holland Heights. Of the six staff members, all but one live right there in the neighborhood, in homes on the streets where they work.

“I saw that these churches had good efforts to impact the neighborhood, but no one is experiencing the heartbeat and culture there,” Hoesch says of her decision to relocate to the Heights. “To really make an impact, I wanted to know it from the inside out.

“You’re a lot more willing to advocate for something when it impacts you. We’re in it together—I can’t walk away from it. It’s not a part of my job anymore; it’s my life. [Living here] creates a really authentic sense of community.”

One of the organization’s biggest community-building events is its Heights of Hope Fest, held annually in the spring. The event highlights the many talents and gifts of those within the Holland Heights community by offering a day full of performances, cooking, family activities, artwork and poetry on display, and more. It’s open to the public beyond the Heights community, as a way to share something positive with the rest of the city.

This year’s fest featured 40 artists and 9 chefs and drew more than 300 people, Hoesch estimated. However, she says the event is more about celebrating and encouraging the gifts of their neighbors than about how many people attend.

“What people don’t see is how valued our neighbors feel when they get to participate in this way. When you’ve been told most of your life that you’re poor, lots of people don’t believe that they have any gifts. For many people, it is the first time that anyone has asked them to contribute something that is important to them.

“It can take a lot of convincing to get them to participate, and we see some who have to work up a lot of courage to do it. But they really appreciate being given the opportunity. We wanted people to know that God created them with unique gifts that were designed to be shared.”

Heights of Hope builds on the good will that is established at the fest and continues, year-round, to encourage its neighbors to contribute their gifts of leadership. As they form relationships, staff members like to identify places where their neighbors can take the lead, whether that’s by serving on the Heights of Hope Fest planning committee, running a specific program, or even being hired on as a Heights of Hope staff member.

Raising up community leaders is an important part of the Heights of Hope ministry, Hoesch says, and is also vital to the health of the neighborhood. From an organizational perspective, the group would rather serve as a guide and be available to provide resources for success than be the ones in charge of everything.

“The thing I am always most excited about is watching people who thought they didn’t have anything to offer transition into people that make a difference. And having them say, ‘This neighborhood doesn’t define me.’ It can take years of convincing, but when they finally break through and realize they are special, that they have gifts, that they matter, that they have a voice—it is so awesome.”

Although Heights of Hope has been a presence in Holland Heights for more than a decade, in some ways their ministry is just becoming established. The past year has been an exciting one for the organization because they have been able to purchase their own community center. While previous potlucks, meetings, classes, and other programs had to be crammed into small apartments or garage spaces during winter or other bad weather, a dedicated community center will provide much more space and flexibility. Moreover, it will offer a permanent home base that all neighbors can use, which brings value to the neighborhood.

For Hoesch, the addition of a community center sends a subtle message that Heights of Hope is there to stay—that their neighbors can continue to count on the community programs, encouragement, and positive relationships that have been revitalizing the Heights.

“We intend to be a permanent presence here,” says Hoesch. “I think Heights of Hope will always be needed, since the neighborhood is always changing. But whether or not our neighbors identify any positive changes as caused by Heights of Hope or not doesn’t matter. We’re just their neighbors.”

Inspired to support and build community with your own neighbors? Email local@rca.org for ideas.

Thank God for Heights of Hope’s thoughtful engagement with the Holland Heights neighborhood.

Pray for the neighborhoods in your city and consider how you might encourage them.

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